Atypical Developmental Patterns of Brain Chemistry in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Abstract

Importance

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder with symptoms emerging during early childhood. The pathophysiology underlying the disorder remains incompletely understood.

Objective

To examine cross-sectional and longitudinal patterns of brain chemical concentrations in children with ASD or idiopathic developmental delay (DD) from 3 different age points, beginning early in the clinical course.

Design

Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging data were acquired longitudinally for children with ASD or DD, and primarily cross-sectionally for children with typical development (TD), at 3 to 4, 6 to 7, and 9 to 10 years of age.

Setting

Recruitment, diagnostic assessments, and magnetic resonance imaging were performed at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Participants

Seventy-three children (45 with ASD, 14 with DD, and 14 with TD) at 3 to 4 years of age; 69 children (35 with ASD, 14 with DD, and 20 with TD) at 6 to 7 years of age; and 77 children (29 with ASD, 15 with DD, and 33 with TD) at 9 to 10 years of age.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Concentrations of N-acetylaspartate (NAA), choline (Cho), creatine (Cr), myo-inositol (mI), and glutamine plus glutamate (Glx) in cerebral gray matter (GM) and white matter (WM) at 3 to 4, 6 to 7, and 9 to 10 years of age, and calculation of rates of change of these chemicals between 3 and 10 years of age.

Results

At 3 to 4 years of age, the ASD group exhibited lower NAA, Cho, and Cr concentrations than did the TD group in both GM and WM, alterations that largely were not observed at 9 to 10 years of age. The DD group exhibited reduced GM and WM NAA concentrations at 3 to 4 years of age; GM NAA concentrations remained reduced at 9 to 10 years of age compared with the TD group. There were distinct differences between the ASD and DD groups in the rates of GM NAA, Cho, and Cr changes between 3 and 10 years of age.

Conclusions and Relevance

The GM chemical changes between 3 and 10 years of age differentiated the children with ASD from those with DD. Most notably, a dynamic reversal of GM NAA reductions was observed in the children with ASD. By contrast, persistent GM NAA reductions in the children with DD suggest a different, more static, underlying developmental process.

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